Friday, November 23, 2007

Here
   Late night notes toward a sense of place

“I have always been here,” I was tempted to say to the journalist, a young Indian woman who had just told me that “Whites are mobile. They don’t care where they live.” She seemed angry that people of my race lived on what she thought of as her reservation. We were in Pablo, Montana, at the offices of the newspaper I edited that was published by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of western Montana.

The Flathead Reservation was opened to nontribal homesteaders in 1910. My family arrived fifty years ago. Nowhere else has ever been home to me. I was surprised by her outburst, which she seemed to have been waiting for some right moment to make. I was struck by how little she knew my heart, and so I thought it probable that I knew hers no better. I held my peace and said nothing and got back to my work.

In truth, I have never been here, though I was something of an early adopter of Thoreau’s ethic:

Think of the consummate folly of attempting to go away from here! When the constant endeavor should be to get nearer and nearer here. Here are all the friends I ever had or shall have, and as friendly as ever. . . Here, of course, is all that you love, all that you expect, all that you are. Here is your bride elect, as close to you as she can be got. Here is all the best and all the worst you can imagine. What more do you want ? Bear hereaway then! Foolish people imagine that what they imagine is somewhere else. . . .

Henry David Thoreau, Journal, November 1, 1858

I had made a pilgrimage to Walden Pond one summer when the air was fragrant with sweet pepper bush, looking for whatever wisdom I might find traipsing the paths once walked by a man whose writings and reputation made his world more real than mine. I stood at the replica of his cabin built up the hill from the lake and looked back toward the waters, as though I might see as he saw. I dove into the lake and gathered five small stones from the bottom—one for each of my small children—the only souvenirs I collected on that trip. I did not want something purchased, probably from a workshop in a distant country, but something authentically of that place. Quite hopeless.

I’ve been asked several times by editors to write this or that about my “sense of place.” Once, as I sat at my desk gazing out the window at the orchard I had planted and thinking about such things, or maybe just gazing out the window, my two-year-old grandson, toddled up and pulled on my sleeve. I looked down at him. He fully understood that people his size only need to be adorable, and he turned his begging eyes full on me. “Campin?” he asked, reaching up with both hands.

It took me a moment. Then I made the connection. The week before he had come with us on a three-family camping trip. We stayed up late talking around the fire while he wandered from person to person, lap to lap, waving a willow sticky with marshmallow. He had associated the “camping” he heard us talk about with what was most memorable about the experience: being surrounded by people who loved him. “Campin” had become his word for sitting on laps and getting hugs. He liked it.

The place we had camped was an unmarked patch of grass along Wounded Buck Creek not far from Glacier Park, just above the little town of Hungry Horse. I had gone there with my parents when I was not much older than my grandson was now. His mother had gone there with my wife and me when she was his age. We usually went there to pick huckleberries in late July. Sometimes we camped there and spent the days in the park. It was a short drive and we avoided the hassles of camping inside the park: full campgrounds and surly grizzlies.

Most people would pass it by without considering it a place at all. It was just a spot along the road. It was only a place because we knew good times there. The places we have in mind when we talk about our sense of place are those intersections of landscape and memory we know as narratable moments. If I had taken my grandson back to that place it wouldn’t have satisfied him. It wasn’t the place he missed so much as what had happened there. It is the memory of a lived story that matters.

I logged off the computer and picked up my child.

We know something is wrong with our lives because we remember our childhoods, when the world was full of hugs and we lived under clouds, seeing the pure blue of sky and smelling grass as we rolled down hills. We knew time then by changes in place—the swelling of willow buds or the waning of the moon or the return of geese. Time was a local matter of sunrise and sunset, of the coming home of cows, of the pink warmth at dawn, of wood smoke in the cooling, shortening days. The world was inexhaustibly present so we didn’t think much about loss and never about death.

We no longer live there, most of the time. We are displaced. We feel the places we live as being less the intersection of nature and history and culture, less a storied context that allows us to think and feel together.

For centuries the Salish who lived here had organized their lives as traditional mountain folk do, moving through a landscape mosaic constantly shifting in time. In late winter, grizzly bears came out of caves in the high country, ravenous and searching the lower slopes for winter-killed carrion. In early spring, camas ripened in valley bottoms and sunflowers bloomed on south slopes. In mid summer, huckleberries ripened on foothills in the mottled light of Ponderosa stands. And as summer days lengthened, antelope gathered into large herds, posting sentries and grazing on the golden grass, and, as the air became cold, bull elk became belligerent and reckless, descending from high ridges, bellowing challenges.

Most of that is gone, and my young journalist senses the loss, and in her personal story I am implicated through my race into the blame. The rhythms and movements of the old Salish were aspects of mind, as transient as the seasons. When they got their first horses around 1730, their sense of place was changed. They began to leave the mountain valleys to hunt buffalo on the Great Plains around the headwaters of the Missouri. They reorganized their lives around a spring hunt and a fall hunt. They adopted the portable teepees of the nomadic tribes. They became skilled warriors to hold their own on the contested plains. They became horsemen and breeders of horses sought by other tribes. They lived in a new place, with new opportunities and dangers. They told their children new stories that included insights into horses, buffalo, the enemy Blackfeet. Their minds were shaped by a larger geography of possibility. In changing the way they related to space, they changed their minds.

Places are places in part because they are haunted. There is a two-mile stretch of road along a canal that I used to walk with a friend who has been gone from here for years. I no longer walk there and I can’t pass by without a dual feeling of remembered good times and sorrow that they are past, never to return.

We don’t become or stay human by ourselves. Place is mostly mind, a level of narrative perception somewhere between molecules and stars. When today’s Salish gaze at the uninhabited mountains, they are gazing into the past, and so the wilderness that enchants with its beauty in the same instant saddens by evoking an awareness of loss. This is the nearest I can come to a definition of “sense of place.” It seems to me that it resonates from loss, intensifying our need for joy. It is part memory, part longing.

We know that we cannot stay more than we know where we really are. We are, as Walker Percy put it, “lost in the cosmos.” A sense of place grows out of a longing for family, for a place in the vastness of time and space at a scale and in a key where we might be understood and loved.

A few weeks after my grandson came into my study, I was there again reading a work of popular physics, something about the illusoriness of time. I went to my window and looked out at the winter night into the thick swirl of snowflakes. In the near distance I saw two cars moving slowly, as it seemed to me, through whatever night they encountered. Matter was, I had been told, vastly different than it seemed. The empty spaces between protons and electrons were a million billion times bigger than the particles themselves. The apparent solidity of things was an illusion created in part by the poor resolution of my eyes but more by the force fields within which the particles existed. Nobody knows what such force fields really are. The electrons and protons themselves were made of smaller particles which emerged from waves of something more original than energy flooding into the universe and pulsing throughout being.

My grandson appeared beside me tugging at my pant leg and looking up, his two-year-old eyes pure with pleading. “I want to see.” So I lifted him to the window where he could gaze at the swirl of flakes and the mystery of light.

A sense of place is a sense of orientation. It is the beginning and end of knowing.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 11/23 at 08:35 PM
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© 2007 Michael L. Umphrey
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